Welcome to Johnstown, PA. For a lot of hockey fans, it’s impossible to think of Johnstown as being it’s own town. The city has a double identity, shared with a mythical place of violence, hockey, bad hair, and horn-rimmed glasses. Johnstown will forever be confused with Charlestown, the fictional town that hosted the Charleston Chiefs, from the movie Slap Shot. If you have not seen Slap Shot yet, you are missing out, and I do not believe you. The movie plays on every bus that has ever carried hockey players, is the perfectly quotable hockey movie, and maybe the perfect hockey movie. Miracle has it’s shine and polish, Mystery, Alaska has it’s charm, and Youngblood has… um…. I’ll leave it at that. But Slap Shot has grit, blood, humor, and a reckless abandon with the script that could never make it to the screen today. If Slap Shot crossed the desk of a movie producer in this day and age, it would wind up in the trash.
I happen to be in Pittsburgh with a week off from work, and I love spending my off days searching out minor league hockey. There are plenty of NHL arenas and games to take in, but they don’t need my money, not like the teams and players toiling in the minors do. They play in sheds that are falling apart, with Zambonis that need more than a wrench put on them, and dressing rooms that could use more than a fresh coat of paint. They need the attendance, and they work hard for every dollar they can get. And they truly appreciate you showing up. When I say “you, I really mean you. Tell a person wearing a name tag at a minor league game how far you drove to see their team, and they will thank you for coming for hours, talk hockey with you, and maybe even bring you a puck. Trust me, it happens. These people are struggling to keep the team afloat, and I mean everywhere. Hockey doesn’t sell itself, no matter what the NHL teams believe.
When the opportunity to visit an icon of the game comes up, you take it. Johnstown had a game on a Friday night, and I could go. What else do I have to say. I grabbed my map, camera, and jersey, and got my butt to the Rink.
Is this where they had the parade at the end of the movie? I can’t tell.
I wound up eating at The Fish House, which is just a little hole in the wall with an old school look and feel to it. Two words: wood panelling. It turns out the place has been there for over thirty years, and was down the street before that, until the flood wiped the old place off the map. It also wiped the Johnstown Jets, the team the Chiefs were based on, off the map as well. From Wikipedia:
The Jets played four seasons total in the NAHL before the league folded in 1977. The team itself folded in the offseason, when the Johnstown flood of 1977 that damaged the arena’s ice making equipment.
The movie was released and the town was flooded in the same year.
Johnstown itself is exactly where the movie left off. The steel factories shut down, and the town has never recovered. The person sitting next to me at the game told me the biggest employer in Johnstown is the hospital. Walking down Main St, the only word I could use to describe the place was “Beat.”
On to the Arena. First, I stopped along the way in a liquor store to pick up a few things for later. My jersey drew the attention of the man working the counter, and he started talking hockey with me. I got a quick rundown of the previous weekends games, one win in the shootout, and one loss in the shootout. The guy was telling me about the crowd, and how much hockey meant to the town. Another stop along the way back to the rink brought me inside the “Candy Store.” I don’t want to insult anyone, but the place was in need of some serious TLC. But they had a smattering of hockey items, including a few Starting Lineup figures from the late 90s, including Sandis Ozolinsh in 1997 and Joe Sakic holding the Stanley Cup. Mind you, they look surprisingly similar. Aside from the numbers on the back, you would think they were twins. Still, at $5 each, I couldn’t pass it up. The store owner bent my ear for a while. He’s concerned about the town, that it’s going down the drain, that younger people just pack up and disappear. He talked about the loss of hockey for the town, and told me how heartbreaking it was to see the team leave. He doesn’t wish that one anyone, but told me that people who bemoan their team should lose it for a year. “I’m still getting over it.”
There are about a hundred different ways to look at this. And I am not going to get into it here. I will say this. If you hire a mascot for hockey, make sure the person you hire can skate with a big head on.
Can you imagine the opposition at an NHL game walking by you in the hall before the game? One simple fence keeping you from the players. You could say anything you wanted. You could taunt, poke, and prod them at will. Then you see a big ass goalie, and you think better of it. The crowd was really tame here, and I don’t blame them. The fence that keeps you from them may be the one that saves your life.
And then head down the hall to the dressing room. The families, kids, and fans hang out to knock knuckles with the players as they pass by. And the players knock every single knuckle held out.
It’s really cool. These guys are looked up to by the kids, and the fans love their team. You always hear of players in the NHL who snub fans and kids, and hey, those guys have more demands and more requests than these guys. But it takes so little. These are happy fans. It doesn’t take much.
This is Tom E. Hawk throwing hot dogs out to the crowd. Yes, you read that correctly.
I don’t blame him. I would be scared too.
The good guys won the game (that would be the Chiefs), but oddly enough, there were no fights. I figured if you played for Johnstown, fighting was mandatory. So remember kids, it’s just a movie.
Can you say, blow out? I knew you could.
That’s about it. The experience was totally worth it. If you are happening by Johnstown, you should stop and see a game. You might even see a fight.